Weeknote 7: Traffic, snow and an awesome party (Week 49, 2017)

Another week means another weeknote and this one finished on a high because last night was the risual Christmas Party!

risual does Christmas parties rather well and I won’t go into the details here but suffice to say, a good time was had. I knew the weather forecast though and needed to be sober today (Mrs W wasn’t too happy about the idea of driving home in the snow) so I can bask in the delight of not-having-a-hangover.

Anyway, it was a joy to wake up in a Country House hotel this morning and see how the landscape was transformed. I took quite a lot of photos on my iPhone but Dropbox is currently refusing to upload them for me, complaining that one is corrupt (but not telling me which one!). I’ll edit them next week and post them then…

Then I drove home in the snow and ice. England can’t cope when it snows (or indeed with any other extremes of weather: too wet; too sunny; too windy). We do mild-grey really well though.

The week

My week was the usual mix of consulting (paid work), training and pre-sales. I was fortunate to spend a day at Microsoft in Reading on Tuesday, topping up my Microsoft 365 (Office 365, plus Windows 10, plus Enterprise Mobility + Security) knowledge. I’m hoping that, time permitting, some blog posts will come out of that.

I’ve been driving around the UK almost 30 years, and driving for work for most of them. This week drove home to me (excuse the pun) just how overloaded the UK’s road infrastructure is, when it took me more than 5 hours to drive to Reading and back (about 75 miles each way), then around 4.5 hours the next day to drive 190 miles on nothing but motorways and trunk A roads (180 miles of which were dual carriageway). It seems likely that the first place autonomous vehicles can take a hold is on major routes like this and I for one can’t wait. Maybe one day we’ll have segregated autonomous driving lanes on the motorways, where the cars can drive closer together (in constant communication and not constrained by human reaction speeds) and maybe even faster (if the law is changed).

This week also saw the quarterly Milton Keynes Geek Night, which I’m proud to have attended every one of! I’ve made a lot of contacts over the 5½ years it’s been running – some of whom I can now count as friends and this event had one of the best set of talks in a long while including:

  • Simon Collison (@colly) on “The Internet of Natural Things”
  • Laura Sutton (@L_Coull)’s “Non-geek’s guide to the Galaxy”
  • Dr Neil Smith (@neilnjae) showing us “Beatles vs. Rolling Stones: using data science to prove which band is best”!
  • Joe Leech (@MrJoe) wrapping up with “UX, Psychology and the Power of 100”

The next one clashes with my wedding anniversary, and Mrs W has even agreed to come along with me as an honourary geek!

At home

We’re hoping to convert our loft next year and the initial notice has been submitted for planning purposes. It seems that, now that councils are better at sharing information, marketers are scraping it to bombard us with offers of storage, home improvements, etc. Apparently, our neighbours will be getting mailshots from lawyers too… all very irksome…

Around town

I missed this event which was part of Milton Keynes’ 50th birthday celebrations – a floating carnival of decorated boats looks like quite a spectacle on the canal!

It’s really noticeable how many people are now sleeping rough on the streets of Milton Keynes. The Bus Shelter are trying to do something about that – but they need to raise funds to convert a double-decker coach to provide emergency shelter. To quote from their website:

“Homelessness can hit anyone – most of us are just three pay packets away from losing our home. With your help we can provide over 5800 safe, warm nights for people forced to sleep on the streets and help them find a positive future.”

Look out for the bus in the Intu part of the Shopping Centre (Midsummer Place) and please donate, if you can:

At the other end of the scale… I passed a man on the mean streets of MK proudly proclaiming that the best place to get a car parking space is the electric charging bays… it may not be illegal to park a petrol/diesel car in an electric space but it is selfish (especially as there are normal spaces free)…

Other stuff

Barclaycard sent me a new credit card “for security reasons”. It was nice to find that my Apple Wallet updated automatically on my phone and my watch. Sadly the many websites where I had the details stored for recurring payments (Apple iTunes, Microsoft, Amazon, M6 Toll, Transport for London, etc.) didn’t.

That reminds me… I wonder when my Curve card will show up… It seems I’ve been stuck with about 1500 people ahead of me in the queue for weeks now… in fact, the number seems to be going up (but if you use my referral link above, I can move back up the queue…)!

On the topic of referrals, my energy switch to Bulb completed this week. It was painless (though I will have to wait to get my credit from First Utility, my previous provider – who seem more interested in selling broadband to me now than reducing my energy bills…). Unfortunately, neither I nor my friend have received our promised referral credits from Bulb. Enquiries are ongoing…

My son and I needed to force-quit an app on my Amazon Fire TV Stick but weren’t sure how. This blog post helped by pointing us to Menu, Settings, Manage All Installed Applications where Force Stop is one of the options.

Sadly, Amazon and Google’s inability to play together nicely means my Fire TV Stick won’t play YouTube videos from 1 Jan 2018. One is not amused:

I’ve been watching Channel 4’s series about Donald Trump’s rise (An American Dream). I’ll leave the politics aside but it’s fascinating to see how the wealthy can grow to take such a position of power…

I noticed that my Nextbase Dashcam was showing the wrong time (1 hour ahead) and every time I changed it, it reverted after the next power cycle… then I realised there was a timezone setting and it was still on GMT+1 (BST). After changing to GMT, all was good. It seems that it picks up the time from the GPS, so the timezone is the important setting…

I’m torn about the use of the new HEIC image format on my iPhone. On the one hand, I want to store the best quality images I can, on the other, I need them to be readable on all my devices

Whilst I was at MK Geek Night this week, I spotted that War Horse is coming to Milton Keynes Theatre next autumn. I enjoyed the film and I’ve heard good things about the National Theatre production too, so tickets are booked for a family cultural treat:

My phone has decided that, when I get in the car, I’m headed for the local Tesco Express… that’s a little worrying (I wonder how does Siri determine my travel patterns?):

Podcasts

I’ve mentioned before that I listen to a lot of podcasts. One of these is the Microsoft Cloud Show. Sometimes, it can be a bit too developer-focused for my tastes but I enjoyed Episode 223, which pretty much encapsulates the conversations I have with customers as an Architect working with the Microsoft cloud!

I also got the chance to catch up with Matt Ballantine this week (one half of the WB-40 Podcast). It’s been a while since Matt and I had a chat but I really enjoyed bouncing around our thoughts on modern collaboration and team working. and team-working. Like Matt, I’m finding myself drawing/writing on screen more (at least when working, using a Surface Pro – my MacBook lacks any sort of touch capability) though it’s also showing how unpracticed I’ve become at writing!

Wrap-up

Anyway, before I get too far into Sunday evening I need to sign-off and check my children haven’t continued building their snow-wall across the neighbours’ drives…

Next week looks like it should feature a lot less travel (at least by road) and a return to cyclocross with my son. I might even be home a few evenings and maybe, just maybe, I’ll write a blog post that’s not one of these weeknotes! I live in hope…

Weeknote No 3: subscription fatigue; travel; 7 day photo challenge; Microbits; and remembrance (Week 45, 2017)

Another week, another week note. And I really should try and publish these a bit earlier (it’s late on Sunday evening again!)

More on my new roof bars/carriers

Last week I wrote about buying my new Thule roof bars and bike carriers from roofracks.co.uk.

After I’d fitted the bars, I noticed a small dent in one of them. I had been super-careful when fitting them, so I can be pretty sure that it wasn’t anything I did. I emailed roofracks.co.uk and, whilst the dent is only visible in certain light conditions and difficult to photograph, they said they couldn’t clearly see the dent in the pictures I sent (including this one):

Dent in new Thule wingbars

(Is it just me? I thought the red ring would help…)

They wanted me to return the damaged bar at my cost so they could inspect and send a replacement (I’d already said it wasn’t worth it but asked if they could apply a small discount). For that reason, I can no longer recommend roofracks.co.uk. Which is a pity, because they have competitive pricing (presumably based on volume sales).

Subscription fatigue

I also referred to subscription fatigue in last week’s weeknote. I knew that my friend David Hughes had written about it somewhere, but I couldn’t remember where… he pointed me to his newsletters (issue 2 and issue 4).

“Each developer that moves to this business model says “it’s just the price of a cup of coffee” every month, and it is. But my […] issue is that many apps are moving to this business model, and that starts to add up.

I could be in the position where I am spending hundreds of pounds a year to essentially rent software.

That is not for me.”

Hear, hear!

Travel

I spent half the week in the north west of England. Rochdale to be precise.

As it’s so difficult to get a parking space near Milton Keynes station after about 8:00 on a weekday, I caught a bus from home. I found a great website that uses open data to list all UK bus services. Bustimes.org.uk is not an official resource but, like realtimetrains.co.uk, it is an incredibly useful one!

I’d bought a ticket from Milton Keynes to Rochdale and back which, despite showing as only valid via Manchester, was not clear about whether it could be used on trams between Manchester’s two main stations (Piccadilly and Victoria). Manchester Metrolink later confirmed that the ticket wasn’t valid (so it’s a good job I played safe and bought a tram ticket then!).

If only Transport for Greater Manchester took a leaf out of Transport for London’s book with tickets that include public transport transfers (cf. Underground between London termini on through journeys) though it seems you can get a ticket that is valid for tram transfers – I just don’t know how!

I found it interesting to see that people on Twitter thought £67.50 was expensive for a return trip from Milton Keynes to Manchester (I thought it was a bargain). It’s certainly not expensive when compared with demand-based pricing on peak Manchester-London services (which can be over £300) or with the cost of driving ~400 miles to Rochdale and back…

Anyone who’s spent any time in and around Manchester will know it’s a city with a reasonably high chance of precipitation. Stupidly, I forgot to take a coat that fits over my suit to Greater Manchester. Muppet. Luckily I had an umbrella in my work bag…

Also worth knowing (from my travels further south at the end of the week): the rear First Class section in Thameslink trains is declassified until further notice. I have no idea why but it’s useful to get access to some power:

The socket location is a little unusual though:

Work opportunities

A couple of nights in Rochdale also gave me a chance to catch up with an ex-colleague and one of my most supportive former managers, Alan Purchase (@AlanPurchase).  He’s at Capgemini now – who seem to be hoovering up a lot of people with Microsoft skills (as are Microsoft themselves). Meanwhile, I got one of the regular LinkedIn contacts asking me if I’d be interested in a fantastic opportunity from someone I’ve never heard of who won’t even say who they are working for but this one was really special: it would involve moving my family to Ireland. Tempting though it may be to keep my EU citizenship post-Brexit, thanks but no thanks.

The rest of the week

As mentioned above, I was back dahn sarf for the second part of the week and spent two days in London with the first one at Microsoft learning more about the capabilities of Azure with regards to data and the intelligent cloud. I’ve been trying to grok this for a while (my background is Infrastructure). The second day was more mundane, supporting a colleague on a consulting engagement.

I tried using Apple Maps for turn-by-turn navigation on my watch whilst riding my Brompton to Microsoft on Thursday. Unfortunately, Apple Maps lacks cycling directions (it only has walk, drive, public transport or taxi) and I got a bit lost with the various “no cycling” routes in Regents Park which made for an interesting route map!

7 Days 7 Photos Challenge

I’ve been “challenged” for the 7 days 7 photos challenge on Facebook. The rules are simple:

Seven days, seven black and white photos of my life. No humans. No explanation. Challenge someone every day.

Some people are critical of this – saying it’s not a challenge, and suggesting it’s just creating a bunch of poor black and white photos on Facebook. I’m actually finding it a great opportunity to think about what I’m doing and to capture something from the day. Anything that gets me thinking creatively about capturing images has to be good, right?

3 days in and my efforts are on Flickr – see what you think so far…

7 Days 7 Photos Day 2

Other stuff

I was signposted to John Naughton (@jjn1)’s 95 theses about technology by Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70). I think it should be required reading for anyone in a senior technology role…

I do most of my geek stuff with my eldest son, so I asked the youngest if he fancied a play with a BBC Microbit. Our inventor’s kit arrived this week:

We had a lot of fun and it was fantastic to see his face light up when his Microbit started playing the sounds and displaying the letter of the notes as he had instructed.

I’ve played with the Relive app a few times to generate a birds-eye view of a route I’ve cycled. GPX Hyperlapse takes a different view – using Google Streetview to help view a route (perhaps in preparation for a ride).

IBP Index looks interesting as an approach for measuring the relative effort of different activities (e.g. cycling, running, etc.).

Today was Remembrance Sunday and a particularly poignant one where I live in Olney as so many local men were lost at the Battle of Passchendaele, exactly one hundred years ago. It’s always good to see so many people turn out to pay their respects but such a shame the traffic wasn’t halted for the 2 minute silence, as it has been in previous years.

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That’s all for now

Right, that’s all for now. If you read this far, thanks for sticking with me. These posts take a long time to write so any feedback is welcomed – it would be good to know I’m not just writing a diary for my own benefit!

A newsletter? Weeknote? Blogletter? Issue No 1 (Week 43, 2017)

Inspired by David Hughes (@DavidHughes) and Christian Payne (@Documentally), a few weeks ago, I ran a Twitter poll to see if anyone would be interested in a newsletter of some of the stuff I’ve been up to. The responses were mixed, but some went along the lines of “the email format doesn’t resonate with me” and “I like reading what you’ve been up to on your blog”. My blog has been falling by the wayside in recent months and I do want to write more, so I’ve decided to write a weekly (ish) newsletter here instead. In between, I’ll stick write the usual tech-inspired stuff but this will be more eclectic. Matt Ballantine (@ballantine70) does something similar with his weeknotes – but he must be incredibly disciplined to get them out every Friday. I spend Fridays trying to end my week.

So, here goes for issue 1. I’m still not sure what this thing should be called?

A week off

I’ve just had a week off work. I needed it. My previous blog post describes some of the challenges I’ve had lately and I really needed to decompress. After the initial weekend madness (just like every weekend), the first half of the week was spent at home, mostly sorting stuff out (more on that later), then a few days away with my family…

The weekend before…

My eldest son has started competing in the Central Cyclocross League and I’ve been joining in the novice races whilst he races in the Under 14s (both races take place on the same course at the same time).

I seriously considered not racing last week after a very hard practice lap but then my son instructed me to “put your numbers on and race your bike”. Oh, OK then!

I’m reasonably fit for long distance stuff (I recently completed the rather hilly inaugural Velo Birmingham 100 mile sportive) and my Caveman Conditioning (circuits) a couple of times a week help with general fitness but cyclocross is something else. Particularly when you’re using a mountain bike because your son is riding his CX bike (how inconsiderate!). I think it may be time for an n+1. Certainly if we do this again next season!

Unfortunately, being ignored in the LBS doesn’t leave a very good feeling. Being ignored on social media after sending the tweet even less so…

Shopping

I don’t often wear a suit for work these days – but there are occasions where it’s still expected (first meetings, particular customers, etc.). I’ve been putting off buying a new suit for a while because a) there are two in the wardrobe that I really should slim down into b) I’d rather spend the money elsewhere. This week I gave in and bought something new.

I took one of my sons with me and he happily browsed the John Lewis technology department whilst I was suit shopping. He thinks I spent a lot of money though and suggested I get a blazer with some M&S trousers like his school uniform for a fraction of the price! Welcome to the world of work, son!

Whilst he was browsing the technology, I spotted this:

The Windows Premium collection appears to be Windows 10, running on a selection of higher-end PCs (Dell XPS 13, HP Spectre, etc.). First time I’d heard of it though…

Administration

I spent a good chunk of my week off working through an administration backlog at home. Ultimately that results in a lot of scanning (on my Canon ImageFormula P-215 desktop scanner), some shredding and a little bit of filing (for those few documents that I do retain in paper form).

After hunting around for PDF editing tools (ideally command line) to remove some pages I didn’t need inside some existing PDF files, I found this comment on the MacRumors forums:

“Preview does all of this quite well, fyi.”

Sure enough: open the PDF in MacOS Preview; delete the extra pages; save. Job done.

Karting, photography and train travel

My youngest son wanted to go to a friend’s go-karting party this week whilst my wife and eldest were heading down to Dorset for a few days. No problem, he could stay at home with me whilst I did some of my admin and then we’d follow on by train.

The karting inspired me to get my Nikon D700 out again. It may be big and heavy but I love the control of the DLSR experience and the results. I’ve tried some pro apps on my iPhone (like 645 Pro) but it’s just not the same!

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Afterwards, the train journey to Dorset gave my son and I a mini-adventure (bus, train, tube, another train) to join the rest of the family – and with a Family and Friends railcard it was less than £30!

Walking

Last Friday was a gorgeous day – almost no wind and bright sunshine didn’t seem like late-October! My family took the chance to go for a walk along the South West Coastal Path from Swanage to Studland (for a pub lunch).

Afterwards, I walked back with one of my sons – and what a treat that was! Glorious views and late-afternoon sunlight meant lots of photo stops but it was certainly my favourite part of the walk!

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On the beach

Saturday’s weather was less impressive but, after lunch at our favourite Swanage coffee shop (Java), coincidentally located next to my favourite Swanage restaurant (Chilled Red, where my wife and I had eaten the night before), we took the boys to the beach. They were happy with their wetsuits to keep the cold at bay whilst they played but I decided to stay dry. At least that was the plan.

I was walking out on one of the groynes to take a picture of the boys, when I found that walking boot soles have almost no grip once they meet wet wood and, faced with the choice of falling face-first (or probably chest-first) onto  a large wooden beam or throwing myself towards the sea, I chose the latter… managing to twist my ankle on the way, and then realising that my wallet and my iPhone were in my pockets.

I’m hoping that the phone will be covered on the household building and contents insurance – we have accidental damage cover and I’ll be making that call tomorrow… otherwise I could be getting an iPhone 8+ sooner than planned!

In the meantime, I’ve found out a lot about the water resistance of various Apple products:

Zwift and Android

My son fancied having a go on my Tacx Vortex trainer today, so we tried to get it working with Zwift for him.

Normally, I use the iOS app on my iPhone but, as that’s still drying out, it wasn’t an option. Zwift is currently available for Windows, MacOS and iOS but not (yet) Android so we went back to my original Windows PC-based setup with Zwift Mobile Link as a Bluetooth bridge. After spending a lot of time trying to get it working this afternoon with my son’s Android phone, it seems that I may need to update the firmware on my trainer for it to be recognised as a controllable trainer via the Android version of Zwift Mobile Link and Bluetooth LE (currently they only see it as a power meter and cadence sensor).

Wrap-up

That’s about it for this week… let me know what you think of the whatever-this-is (newsletter? blog post? something else?) and I’ll think about writing another one next week.

Dreaming of a better commute

Travelling in and out of London this week for the course I’ve been attending has reminded me why working from home (mostly) is a huge blessing. At least 4 hours’ travel a day for a relatively simple 60-mile commute? No thank you!

I did, however, use two different routes with contrasting experiences and that made me think – why does it have to be this way? And what might it be like one day?

Commute route 1: Olney to London via Bedford (Thameslink/East Midlands Trains)

After driving to Bedford and finding a space in the car park (not always easy), the next question was where are the ticket machines? The option to pay and display with optional mobile phone/SMS/app payment seems to have been replaced by a system to pay as you leave the car park on foot (albeit with an optional mobile app). It uses ANPR to recognise my car but the user interface is confusing and there’s no option for contactless payment (surely a perfect use case for fast commodity transactions like this?). At £7.90 for a day’s parking (when the only reason you would ever park there is to catch a train!), it’s expensive too.

Then, at the station I bought a ticket – again falling foul of a confusing user interface (not helped by Thameslink’s corporate colours not really highlighting what I need to see). I switched to another machine and followed a different (but more familiar) purchase journey on the touch screen whilst another customer switched queues because of a broken card reader in the machine she was using.

Catching the train is simple, with frequent services but lots of stops and the (07:34) train is packed well before reaching London.

The good thing about this route (on Thameslink – not on East Midlands Trains) is that it goes right to the heart of the city (not the West End) although I change at Farringdon to get on the underground towards Tower Hill. Sadly, with no barriers to pass through and crowds of commuters I didn’t see an Oyster touch in/out machine, which I realise after boarding the train – wouldn’t it be good if there were more of these machines or if you could swipe on the train!? I touch out at the end of the journey but am charged the full fare and it takes me a lot of time on the phone waiting to sort out the charging…

Commute route 2: Olney to London via Milton Keynes (London Midland/Virgin Trains)

After a faster drive to Milton Keynes (MK is famous for its roundabouts but there’s a real benefit in the national speed limit grid road network), I park close to the station. The actual station parking is extortionate (so much so that I know some people who don’t pay, preferring to take the risk of an occasional fine) but off-street parking is available and half price if I pay by phone (£4.18).

I buy a ticket at the station but know to always allow time for queuing: there are 6 machines and 4 booths but that’s never enough! It’s 06:54 so I dash for the 06:55 London Midland service, but see that the (faster) 06:53 Virgin train has only just arrived (even though it’s showing as “on time”).

We set off towards London, only to be delayed by a vehicle striking a bridge at Watford and are overtaken by the slower London Midland service that I nearly caught earlier! Eventually, we get moving and arrive in London 20 minutes late…

A dream of a better commute

These real world stories are just single journeys and it could all be so different on another day. So let’s compare with what it could be like:

  • My calendar shows that I’m planning to be in London for the day.
  • My alarm wakes me with enough time to get ready, and the lights in the house gently warm up to wake me from my slumber.
  • I drive to the station and, as I park my phone recognises my location and that I’m stationary, asks me if I need to pay for parking and then takes care of the details.
  • Arriving on the station concourse, my digital personal assistant has pre-bookèd my train ticket and there’s a boarding pass on my phone. No paper tickets are required as the barriers can simply scan a QR code on my screen (or even use NFC?)
  • There’s a steady flow of trains (on time of course!) and as I switch to the Underground, payment is dealt with as I pass through turnstiles using a contactless payment card – and, even if I end up on the platform via a different route I can pick my boarding point (verified using location services) and ensure I’m correctly billed, using a smartphone app…
  • Realising there are delays on the line, my phone reschedules appointments as required, or otherwise ensures that contacts are aware I will be delayed.

It’s not difficult – all of this technology is available today but it just doesn’t quite work together… all of this talk of an Internet of Things brings it tantalisingly close but train companies, car park operators and other organisations still cling on to outdated methods. So it seems I’ll be dreaming for a little while longer…

 

The sleeper train to no-where!

There’s something about travelling long distances by train that seems much more civilised and pleasurable than flying. Certainly, for me, the glamour that may once have been associated with taking a jet plane is no longer present – at least not in economy class – and there was nothing pleasant about arriving at a very busy “London Luton” Airport at 6:30 on a Monday morning to catch a flight to Inverness.

Of course, navigating our increasingly arcane airline security: disposing of liquids; removing items of clothing; and being asked to take a sizable chunk of my possessions out of my hand luggage before it can be x-ray scanned gave me something to do for an hour. That was followed by lots of waiting around at the terminal as I arrived far too early, because of the unpredicatability of rush-hour traffic in South East England.

But this trip was special – my return journey would be by train – and I’d booked onto the ScotRail Caledonian Sleeper as far as Crewe (from where I would make an early-morning exit and hop on a train to Manchester). One of only two remaining sleeper services in the UK (there’s also a Night Riviera Sleeper service from London to Cornwall), I’ve often seen the Caledonian Sleeper come through Milton Keynes as I’ve waited for my train to London and thought “what a great way to travel overnight”. This was my opportunity – and at £112.40 for train and a bed for the night, it was no more expensive than a no-frills flight and a budget hotel.

The day was going so well – right up to the point that my taxi driver to the station said that he’d always been delayed when he’d used the ‘Sleeper. Did he jinx me? Somehow I doubt it but I should have realised that the high winds that had made my flight a little bumpy would also be causing chaos with overhead power lines on the railways and I arrived at Inverness station to see that the 20:44 to London was cancelled. Cancelled? But that’s where I was to be sleeping!

I’m not sure if I was more disappointed that I wouldn’t be taking the sleeper train, or worried about a bed for the night but ScotRail’s station staff seemed to know the drill. Clearly the cancelled sleeper is something that they have seen many times before and it becomes a “stationary” hotel for the night when it can’t run south. Most Caledonian Sleeper passengers are heading for London and the advice given to those of us who had arrived early enough was to jump on a train to Edinburgh, then grab a bed on the Edinburgh sleeper (plenty of space at this time of year), before boarding the 5.40 “Flying Scotsman” to London, which only arrives in Kings Cross a couple of hours after the Sleeper should have got to Euston. My journey was a little more complex though: I could stay in Inverness and travel south the next day, hoping that the issues caused by adverse weather conditions on the West Coast route would have eased; or travel to Edinburgh, then see if there was a bed for me on the Sleeper carriages waiting there (although ScotRail staff were confident there would be) and take an East Coast and Trans-Pennine route via York to Manchester. I elected for the Edinburgh option (on reflection, I should have stayed in Inverness, got a longer night’s sleep and taken in the Scottish scenery the morning afterwards – although I would have been travelling for most of the day instead) and so I spent my evening on a three-and-a-half-hour stopping service to Edinburgh… Upon arrival, I was directed to the Caledonian Sleeper Lounge, which was a scruffy affair, piled high with cardboard boxes, but staffed by a friendly ScotRail employee who directed me to drinks and snacks until our train/hotel was ready and it was only a few minutes later when I was able to go to the platform.

Sure enough, there was plenty of room on the train and a steward showed me to a berth, explaining “it’s number 1 and over the wheels but that won’t be a problem as we’re not going anywhere tonight!”. I was tired and had it not been for the need to charge my mobile devices (and the lack of power sockets in the sleeping berths – a side effect of using 1980s-built railway carriages I guess) I might have turned in for the night but instead I headed for the Lounge car where I found a warm welcome.

Whilst complementary tea/coffee and sandwiches were on offer, I waited for a locomotive to be connected to the train to provide the power needed for staff to cook meals. A short while later I tucked into Haggis, Neeps and Tatties, washed down with Deuchars. After all, if I’m in Edinburgh, I might as well enjoy some Scottish food and drink! It was good too – not the railway travellers’ fare that I’m used to on Virgin Trains – although it maybe something that first class travellers are more used to!

Red lights for the Caledonian Sleeper train

By then, I’d been up for almost 19 hours and decided that it was time for bed, making my way back to my berth. The standard berths are bunk beds and there’s not a lot of space around them but I found the flip up cover to access the sink and the spare bed was somewhere to store my luggage! There are options for single berths in first class – or there’s a reclining seat option for those who don’t need a bed. The rooms are not en-suite but there are toilets in the end of each carriage. For those travelling in larger groups, there are connecting doors to the next compartment and the warm, comfortable bedding, together a variety of lighting options (including a night light) meant that I was soon in the land of nod, albeit without the sound of railway wheels running over joints in the track. Maybe that would have helped to relax me but I did have a pretty restless night – although I was surprised that I didn’t hear noise from other trains in the station there didn’t seem to be a way to turn off the noisy air conditioning unit (only a temperature control).

At 5:00, I heard a knock on the door, whereby a steward handed over a cup of tea and told me which platform the London train would be leaving from. Even though I wasn’t taking that service, my time on the sleeper had to end – staff were clocking off and it was locked up by 5:30. Maybe this wasn’t quite the Caledonian Sleeper experience I’d hoped for – but I had got some rest at least and was looking forward to taking in some east coast scenery as I made my journey south.

It was certainly an eventful trip but, far from putting me off the journey, it’s something I’d try again. ScotRail’s staff were all very friendly and there’s an atmosphere on board that makes taking the sleeper feel like something different and special. The Caledonian Sleeper is looking a little tired now, but there’s a £100M investment programme coming as part of a new 15-year franchise and it may be worth making a return visit.  Unfortunately, I can’t convince Mrs Wilson to join me, so it may just have to be the next time I have a business trip to Scotland!

Collecting train tickets at the station? Seems it doesn’t matter which station you select…

At least once a month, I travel to Manchester for work. I tend to use the train, rather than drive because: it’s pretty straightforward; I can work on the journey; and I’m not so tired at the other end (although having the car with me can be more flexible at times).

Today is one of those days when I’m heading north but this time, instead of a straight out and back from Milton Keynes Central to Manchester Piccadilly, I need to be in Crewe tomorrow. That meant buying three single tickets – and even though my train from Manchester to Milton Keynes sometimes goes via Crewe, it cost more to break the journey than to go direct. That’s just one of the many vagaries of the British railway ticket system (and contrary to a popular money-saving tip)… go figure!

Anyway, the reason for this diatribe is that the Virgin Trains website defaulted to letting me collect my tickets from the “Fast Ticket” machine (a complete misnomer when it involves looking up and entering an 8 digit alphanumeric reference on a not-very-responsive touch screen using a non-QWERTY keyboard) at the origin of my last journey (i.e. Crewe) rather than my first (i.e. Milton Keynes Central).

In horror, after spending £150 on train tickets, I thought I would have to *drive* to Crewe to collect them! In a state of panic I called Virgin Trains (calls cost 4.5p a minute from a BT land line – on other networks you may need a small mortgage), who told me it doesn’t actually matter which station I collect the tickets from, as long as I have my payment card with me.  Bizarre! So why ask me which station I want to collect from then?!  (Maybe blame the Trainline.com back-end – or perhaps the rail ticketing systems…)

I didn’t trust the advice and didn’t want to be caught out whilst trying to catch the something-way-too-early train to Manchester this morning, so I headed to my local station to collect my tickets on Friday evening, just in case I needed to get someone at Virgin Trains to help me out.  Actually, I drove over twice because I forgot my credit card on the first occasion and left it next to my laptop on my desk, from where I’d bought the tickets (idiot)!

Anyway, the verdict is that it really doesn’t seem to matter which station you select to collect your tickets at – you can collect them in any Fast Ticket machine at any station (as long as you have the card used to purchase them).  Something that might be worth knowing about if you ever find yourself panicking as a result of some poor UX design on a website…

Fixing iPass and Virgin Trains Wi-Fi authentication issues

Connected to Virgin Trains Wi-Fi using iPassAlthough I travel on Virgin Trains pretty frequently, it’s usually only from Milton Keynes to London Euston and not worth getting my laptop out of my bag. Now, I’m finding myself travelling to Manchester more often and working on the train is a major advantage over driving.

Virgin has Wi-Fi on its trains, which is complementary in first class but chargable (at the usual extortionate rates) for those of us in the cheap seats. The company I work for provides me with an iPass client though, so I can use that to connect without hefty credit card fees and expense claims (at least on Windows I can, it wasn’t working for me on iOS last time I tried).

Lately though, I’ve found that the iPass client would connect to the VirginTrainsWiFi network and then present a pop-up asking me to pay for access.  That didn’t seem right, so I logged a call with our IT helpdesk… I’ll spare readers the details of that particular experience but I also spoke to Virgin’s Wi-Fi support team, who suggested I download an updated “phonebook” for the iPass client.  The client version that I’m using (2.3, I think) doesn’t have an option for a phonebook download but, with the help of some of the guys in our IT department, I found that the phonebook can get corrupted sometimes and the resolution is to remove and re-install the iPass client.

We don’t have a huge sample but I’m now told my fix (I’m connected on iPass, on the train right now) makes it a 100% success rate from 3 people with the problem.  Maybe it will help someone else out there on the ‘net too…

When trains stop at stations but passengers can’t use them…

As I paid for a ticket to for the rail journey into London this morning, I was reminded of my anger and frustration the last time I made this trip, herded like cattle onto a packed commuter train, whilst being refused access to one of the many trains that stop at my station but which travellers are unable to use because they are either “to pick up” or “to set down” only.

As a nation, we tend to blame all that is wrong with our railways on privatisation but this practice is not new. Indeed, it serves to show that, even in the halcyon days of nationalised rail service, some ludicrous decisions were made – and that some of those decisions still stand today.

I live just outside Milton Keynes, a town 50 miles north of London with a generally good rail service, from two train operating companies, London Midland and Virgin Trains. London Midland operates stopping and semi-fast services whilst Virgin runs the express (formerly inter-city) trains (Southern also operates services via west London). But there is a flaw – and it’s a big one. Between 07:14 and 09:19 southbound, and between 15:43 and 18:43 northbound, passengers are not allowed to board Virgin trains that stop at Milton Keynes. And yes, you read that correctly, passengers are not allowed to board trains that already stop at their station at the busiest time of the day!

Last week, faced with huge queues for a the 16:48 London Midland service for which the inbound train had not yet arrived, I tried to board the 16:43 Virgin train instead. At the ticket barrier I was told “this train doesn’t stop at Milton Keynes” but, when I pointed out that it does, at 17:13, the Virgin Trains official still refused me access to the platform.
How do I know about the unadvertised stops? Well, aside from working timetable information being available online, looking at Milton Keynes arrival and departure information on the public timetable clearly showed a train at 17:13 which was the 16:43 from Euston.

I can understand the desire to keep seats free on long-distance trains for long-distance travellers: that’s why seats are sold with reservations and also why there are fare structures that limit travel on peak-time journeys. I can also see the timetabling logic (when I have travelled to Manchester, trains are often “late” when they stop at Stockport “to set down only” but “on time” when they make it to Piccadilly a few minutes later, due to the recovery time built in to the timetable). But there is a difference here: Milton Keynes is 50 miles from London;  it’s not a suburb of the same conurbation, like Watford is to London or Stockport is to Manchester. Preventing travellers from boarding/leaving trains here is equivalent to saying that passengers can’t use Virgin trains from Wolverhampton to Coventry or from Manchester to Stoke-on-Trent and that they should use local services instead. Madness!

When I vented my frustrations on Twitter, Virgin Trains backed up their position, but some people suggested that those with cheap tickets shouldn’t be able to use the fast trains. Let me just be completely clear: there are discounted Virgin-only or London Midland-only fares but I was attempting to travel with a full-price peak ticket – in other words a ticket that should allow travel on any service between Milton Keynes and London.

So, what’s the real point of this 500-word missive?

Give Milton Keynes the express train service that it deserves! Network Rail spent millions adding platforms to our station so that more trains can stop here, yet one of the train operating companies doesn’t let the passengers get on or off at the busiest time of the day.

The trains may be privatised but the railway is a piece of national infrastructure, and Richard Branson et al would do well to remember who their customers are when  complaining about losing lucrative franchises to rival bidders*…

*I appreciate that this decision was later reversed due to issues with the bidding process – that doesn’t change the fact that Virgin Trains sometimes seems to forget who its customers are.